The growth of perennial plants in the temperate zone alternates with periods of dormancy that are typically initiated during bud development in autumn. In a systems biology approach to unravel the underlying molecular program of apical bud development in poplar (Populus tremulax Populus alba), combined transcript and metabolite profiling were applied to a high-resolution time course from short-day induction to complete dormancy. Metabolite and gene expression dynamics were used to reconstruct the temporal sequence of events during bud development. Importantly, bud development could be dissected into bud formation, acclimation to dehydration and cold, and dormancy. To each of these processes, specific sets of regulatory and marker genes and metabolites are associated and provide a reference frame for future functional studies. Light, ethylene, and abscisic acid signal transduction pathways consecutively control bud development by setting, modifying, or terminating these processes. Ethylene signal transduction is positioned temporally between light and abscisic acid signals and is putatively activated by transiently low hexose pools. The timing and place of cell proliferation arrest (related to dormancy) and of the accumulation of storage compounds (related to acclimation processes) were established within the bud by electron microscopy. Finally, the identification of a large set of genes commonly expressed during the growth-to-dormancy transitions in poplar apical buds, cambium, or Arabidopsis thaliana seeds suggests parallels in the underlying molecular mechanisms in different plant organs.